By Justin Meyer, Nothing But Nylon
Before the championships, before the winning seasons, before the grandiose life lessons and before the revival of Washington University men’s basketball, Mark Edwards was just another tall kid in the Midwest who figured he might as well use his height for something.
When he was growing up in Peoria, Illinois, people would tell him he should play basketball because of his stature. In fifth grade, he accepted the challenge and tried out for his grade school’s team. It quickly became a passion.
Edwards continued with the sport into high school, attending and playing at Richwood High. The school had one of the best reputations in the state, and he fell in love with the balance of academics and athletics that would lay the foundation for his D-III deference.
“It was important to me that I found a place where I could do both,” Edwards recalled from when he was choosing a college. “I finally decided that Washington University was a place I could do both.”
Chuck Smith recruited him, selling Edwards on a school where he could achieve his dreams in both areas. But when Edwards arrived on campus in the fall of 1965, it wasn’t Smith who greeted him.
Smith left WashU that summer for the Central Missouri job, leaving Edwards with a new coach he had never met before: Bob Greenwood.
“Quite honestly, back then I didn’t know any difference,” Edwards explained. “I thought that’s how it happened. Nowadays of course everything would be in the papers and on social media, and everybody would know what was going on. I just came in and said, ‘Oh, okay, this is the way things are done.’”
Fortunately, the two built a connection, with Greenwood treating Edwards “like his first recruit.” The coach took a mentorship role, and the player was still just as thrilled to attend WashU and don its colors.
Edwards played out his college career at WashU, helping right the ship to recover from Smith’s departure. Following three-straight losing seasons his freshman through junior years, he played a role in completing the program’s first winning campaign since Smith left St. Louis.
After earning his undergraduate degree, Edwards hung around the program for the 1969-70 season as a grad assistant while working on a masters in psychology. The United States government had a different plan for him, though.
“This is back during the Vietnam era and in the middle of my graduate programs, deferments in the draft were eliminated, and I was drafted right out of graduate school into the Army,” he said. “I hadn’t finished my program. I had started work on my thesis, research for it, etcetera. I would have had to have started all over again when I got out. I wasn’t too excited about that.”
After leaving the Army in 1972, Edwards wasn’t sure what to do with his professional life. Restarting his masters wasn’t appealing, and basketball was all he had known. He got back in touch with his former coach, who was now at the helm at Washington State, and was invited to come to Pullman to help. Edwards took the gamble, packed his bags and went west in the middle of the season.
But another twist: roughly three weeks after his arrival, Greenwood was fired, and Edwards was stranded in eastern Washington with no idea what would come next.
Washington State Athletic Director Ray Nagel threw him a bone. He apologized for Edwards getting dragged all the way out there only for his coach to be fired, so he promised that if he helped smooth over the transition into the next regime, he would be sure he had a spot on the staff. Edwards agreed, and soon he was one of George Raveling’s underlings.
For nine years, Edwards coached under Raveling, a man with an extensive legacy in his own right. It was his first head coaching job, and at times both men learned the ropes together.
“I would have to say he’s my primary mentor,” Edwards said of Raveling. “He is one of the hardest working people I’ve ever known, and he’s also one of the most compassionate people I’ve ever known. He taught me a lot about how competitiveness and playing sport can be done both competitively and with compassion. In other words, you win with dignity, and I think this was an important part of my philosophy in coaching. You win the right way and for the right reasons.”
When both coaches started at Washington State, the program was on its way down. It also had John Wooden and the monster he had built in Westwood to compete with in the Pac-8, soon to be Pac-10. But within three seasons, Raveling, Edwards and company turning the Cougars into a winning team and put the program on the map, eventually getting to Washington State’s first NCAA Tournament appearance in nearly 40 years in 1980.
But Raveling’s compassion for his players is the number one thing Edwards said he will always remember from the time he spent on his staff.
“One of the players came out and said he felt Coach Raveling was being biased toward the African-American players,” Edwards said. “Meanwhile, another African-American player came out and said he felt George Raveling was being biased toward the white player. We had this investigative thing going on through all this, and of course it gets all resolved and there’s nothing to any of it.
“A number of years later, George gets a phone call from one of those players who had accused him of stuff, and he said he was applying for a job with Nike, which was a brand-new company back then, and George was an advisor with Nike when it first started. ‘They told me that if I can get a recommendation from you, they’d hire me.’ And you know what? George gave him one.”
Witnessing Raveling’s understanding of growth and forgiveness of mistakes was important in shaping Edwards into the head coach and program builder he became after leaving Washington State for WashU in 1981. He was keen to make clear he and Raveling differed on some things, but the baseline of Raveling’s principles have stayed with Edwards even now.
“The lessons that you learn, you have to apply them to your own life. It’s not like a person is going to give you a road map of what you have to do to be successful,” Edwards explained. “A mentor is simply going to give you somebody to look at and to examine and to come up with your own conclusions as to what it is that they do that makes them so successful.
“I’m not George Raveling. I don’t do everything George Raveling does. There’s a number of things I would do different and do differently, but the overall core, character and morality of the way he works has carried with me all the way through.”
In 1981, Mark Edwards was met with a decision.
Ten years earlier, the WashU basketball program had been discontinued. Reductions had to be made, and while most schools that needed savings cut football, the athletic director at the time doubled as the football coach. That meant basketball got the axe just one year after Edwards graduated.
“It was crushing,” Edwards recalled. “I wrote a letter to the chancellor at the time and said how disappointed I was as an alum. The sweat equity you put into a school and into a program, to see it totally disregarded, I was hurt.”
For a decade, WashU continued with no basketball program. But in the early-1980s, a new regime took charge, and this one saw a future where academics and athletics survived and thrived at the university. The school reached out to its alum in Pullman, Washington, who had served as George Raveling’s assistant at Washington State for nine years.
Edwards was wary at first. He wanted to be certain that if he left for his alma mater, his new bosses would walk the walk. After hearing them out, he was convinced they were as committed to WashU’s success as he was.
He left Pullman and went back to St. Louis, moving to Division-III and starting his own program from scratch, which was just the way he wanted it.
“We were at ground level. There was no team,” Edwards said. “It gave me the opportunity to craft the program, bring in the players. Their expectation was to contribute to something new. It wasn’t like I was coming into a program that was faltering, and you had to change their opinion of what was going on or you had to fight the tradition that was there of losing. We had no tradition. We had the opportunity to create that ourselves, and I felt that was a big plus.”
Of course, it wasn’t easy. Building from nothing meant a roster of exclusively freshman. The team was Division III, but chiropractic schools and seminaries helped fill out chunks of the roster. Edwards worked with the hand he was dealt.
His first team went 3-16. It earned one Division-III win all season, a 60-59 thriller against Grinnell College, a winless team.
“It was our last chance to get a Division-III win,” he said. “We won it on a shot at the buzzer in overtime, and our kids were jumping up and down like we won the national championship.”
In another game that year, the other team entered the game with only six players. WashU was up 10 when opposition fouled out its second player, leaving it with only four. The Bears lost the game.
“You look at situations like that, they occurred all the time throughout that first year,” Edwards said, chuckling at the memories. “When that happens, you start to second guess yourself a little bit, but then you realize you have to believe what you’re trying to get your players to believe, and you buckle down and keep plugging ahead.”
In his second and third seasons, Edwards led the Bears to 6-20 and 8-18 records, respectively. The program was noticeably improving, but it was still tough sledding to endure those years. He told himself consistently to stay the course.
“The hardest thing was trying to convince good student-athletes to come to Washington University with the idea of winning a championship without the tradition behind it. All we had was a dream to be able to offer them,” he said. “You have to be patient. Anybody who is working to build something has to recognize that.”
Finally, in his fourth season, his program had its first winning record since 1968-69, Edwards’s senior year. The team had a talented freshman class in 1984, including Kevin Suiter, whose 1,824 career points is still the most-ever in WashU men’s basketball history. Edwards and the whole program was excited to get over the .500 hump and bring back a good chunk of its production for the upcoming 1985-86 season.
After the season ended in 1985, Edwards went to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s scholar athlete dinner for high schoolers. One of the speakers was Jackie Joyner-Kersee, a St. Louis-native who had won a silver medal in the heptathlon at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. In her speech, she discussed how crushing it was come up short for the gold.
“Here I am feeling pretty confident that we just had a winning season for the first time ever,” Edwards explained. “We’re beating chiropractic schools, and Jackie Joyner-Kersee is disappointed with a silver medal. That put it all into perspective. Success is relative to what you’re shooting for.”
That’s when Edwards changed the course of his program.
“When I walked away from that, I decided we were going to be shooting for the top,” he said. “Every day, every year, when I’d meet with the team, I’d try to convince them that there was a championship in the room: that this was something we were going to try to achieve and this was our goal. Yes, we’re going to celebrate all these little steps in between, but we weren’t going to lose track of what our long-range goal was.”
Before reaching the Final Four in 2007 or cutting the nets in 2008, heartbreak followed Mark Edwards and the WashU Bears.
After the winning season of 1984-85, it took another two seasons for Edwards to qualify his Bears for the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 1987. WashU won a nail-biter against Rust College in the first round, 69-68, in the program’s first postseason game since 1965. But the Bears came up just short in the Regional Championship, falling, 66-64, to North Carolina Wesleyan.
That would be the theme for the next two seasons. WashU won the University Athletic Association (UAA) in 1988, the conference’s first season of existence, finishing 22-7 (9-1). Edwards’s team won its first two games in the tournament but ultimately fell, 58-55, to Nebraska Wesleyan at the buzzer in the quarterfinal.
“I had a senior-laden team with an All-American,” Edwards said. “We were ranked and everything else. Led that whole game, and then got beat at the buzzer. Those kids to this day remember that. They talk about that game as being the most disappointing their whole career.”
Then in 1989, another successful regular season led to a tournament berth, and after an odd situation brought upon a forfeit in the first round, WashU lost another painful one, this time by the closest margin yet: a 69-68 defeat to Centre College in the Regional Championship.
Three of the best seasons in WashU men’s basketball history, and the three best in Edwards’s tenure in St. Louis, and all three ending in crushing ways. It was his job to walk into those locker room after each defeat.
“Well, you’re in sport. Those are things that happen,” Edwards said. “The important thing as a coach is to recognize the fact that you’re on stage. How you react to this, how you respond to this, how you deal with it is going to set the tone for how (the players) handle it. And I think the big thing with the disappointment, you can’t turn it into a grieving process. Nobody died. The thing is, you have a future, and you just had a great experience that has to be the motivator for the next.”
Those were only a snippet of the excruciating losses and other setbacks Edwards, his players and the program as a whole endured before making their deepest run in 2007. The former coach said the margins are thin, but that’s life in basketball and otherwise.
“If you’re going to base your whole life on the outcome of one event, then you have chosen incorrectly what it is you’re trying to do,” he explained. “I think the important thing is you realize it’s a continuum. You came close, and we came close an awful lot. If you look at our records over the years, I had some really good teams. Teams that were very capable of winning the national championship, and all it takes is one bounce: somebody fouling out, somebody sick, having a tough game, not getting shots or them getting shots.
“There are all kinds of circumstances that can waylay you on that trip. If you let that define your career, you let that define your legacy, then you miss the whole point of sport. So yeah, it was disappointing, but you know what? It was also energizing. And when you walked into the room to start the next season, you walked into that team meeting, you carried that energy with you, and the players picked up on it.”
It took Edwards 26 years, 12 NCAA Tournament bids and plenty of bad bounces before that energy turned into a Final Four appearance. It’s something Edwards only really appreciates now looking back.
“At the time, you don’t realize it. You’re so thrilled, and you turn right around to play in the Final Four,” he said. “Unless you win the national championship, you’re going to be disappointed because that means you got knocked out somewhere along the way.”
In 2007, two of WashU’s four wins to get to the Final Four were within one possession, perhaps a sign that this was the year the ball bounced its way.
But that’s not how it went. Virginia Wesleyan College beat WashU at the buzzer, 67-65, in the national semifinal, and all the joy of reaching the program’s first Final Four was immediately dampened.
At that time, a Third Place Game was played between the two national semifinal losers the next day, and Edwards’s players had no interest in suiting up again after having their hearts ripped from their chests, but their coach wouldn’t let that happen.
“The kids were really down. This was a semifinal game, and we had a basket that we made at the buzzer, but it was after the buzzer went off,” Edwards said, adding it was the right call, albeit disappointing. “It took some really gut-wrenching talk of, ‘Hey, this is what is defined as.’”
The team ended up playing and collected a, 92-84, win over Wooster and the national third place designation. After the game, Edwards said his players were grateful his staff has convinced them to play.
“Without a doubt, every one of those kids after the game, ‘Coach, it was definitely worth it,’” Edwards said. “You see, it’s a learning experience. Sometimes that learning, you don’t recognize what it is until after it happens. Losing along the way, that’s what it’s all about.”
In the following year, a roster similar to the one that made it to the Final Four in 2007 finished the job in 2008. After decades of building, of promising generations of players that one day the program would be on top and countless punches in the mouth, that lofty goal Edwards set in 1985 could be checked off the to-do list.
Then, the craziest thing: it happened again. Edwards and his Bears repeated in 2009, doubling up on a dream that took nearly 30 years to actualize.
What did Edwards learn from his teams’ runs in 2007, 2008 and 2009?
“The ball bounced the right way, no doubt about it,” he explained. “I’ve had some really good teams, just wasn’t good enough on the night we lost.”
In the 2009 First Round, WashU traveled to Elmhurst, Illinois, to battle Lawrence University. The Bears led the whole game, but after giving up a few threes and a momentum swing, the game came down to the final possession after a timeout. Up two with seconds to go, WashU had to get one last stop as Lawrence ran its attempt at a game-tying-or-winning sideline play.
“They had a guy who had gotten really hot at the end of the game, and we knew they were going to try to get him the ball, we were going to switch,” Edwards recalled. “Well, we screwed it up. One guy switched, the other guy didn’t. The guy with the ball didn’t have anybody on him. He drove all the way to the basket and hit the underside of the rim on an uncontested layup, and we win.
“The year before (in 2008), we were playing Buena Vista (in the Sectional Semifinal), and the guy took the shot to win at the buzzer, and it bounced up and down on the rim and rolled off. If it went in, we’re out. If it didn’t, then we moved on. I can list other games like that all along. I won’t say it’s luck, but I will say that you need to recognize that sometimes things happen and you just have to be in the right position at the right time in order to take advantage of it.”
It’s hard for Edwards to say if he has a favorite between the 2008 and 2009 titles. Both are special for different reasons: 2008 was the first-ever national championship won by a men’s team at WashU, and obviously the first climb to the top of the mountain has inherent meaning. But in 2009, his team did it with a target on its back, carrying the moniker of national championships all season yet not succumbing to that pressure.
“I enjoyed the first one just as much as I enjoyed the second one, and I enjoyed the second one just as much as I enjoyed the first one,” he said. “If that sounds like a confusing answer, maybe that’s why.”
It’s easy now, a roughly a decade on from the two championships and three Final Fours, and celebrate what Edwards and the Bears were able to accomplishing when he was at the helm. But for most of the time he was head coach, there were no national championship or Final Four banners hanging from the rafters. There were plenty of wins, conference titles and postseason appearances, but every season ended in disappointment.
Some people refer to those types of situations as having a monkey on one’s back. People often comment on current coaches or players lacking titles, certain awards or anything else as needing to get that monkey off their back. That wasn’t the case for Edwards.
“If you consider it to be a monkey on your back, you’re never going to be successful, because you’re playing to win a national championship, and that’s the only reason you’re playing it,” he explained. “Then it becomes an obsession and not a passion, and when something becomes an obsession, the boundaries of behavior, what you’ll do to get there, etcetera, change. Taking things into perspective is very important. I can give a kid a hug after a loss as much as I can after a win. It’s needed for a different reason, that’s all.”
Edwards chose to describe his program before the national championships in a different way.
“I preached to all the teams that didn’t win a national championship that someday, somebody will win it, and you will be a part of that,” the coach said. “When we won that in 2008 and 2009, it represented the efforts of everybody all the way back to 1982, and they sincerely believed that. So when you say is there a monkey on your back, I think it’s a program unresolved until that was won. And then once they won it, it was like, ‘Yeah, Coach said all along we could win a national championship, and we finally did it.’”